When Raonel Valdez walked into a Coral Gables, Fla., apartment building early one morning last March, he already had a rap sheet that included arrests for felony possession of both marijuana and methamphetamine, aggravated assault and was also a suspect in a major smuggling case that brought Cuban migrants to Mexico on stolen go-fast boats.
His criminal past had earned him a GPS monitor that was strapped to his ankle, purportedly checking on his every movement.
An hour later, he and two cronies would be wanted in one of the most brazen robberies in South Florida’s history: an armed gold heist that netted 110 pounds of gold flakes – valued at $2.8 million – from an unsuspecting, sickly courier, George Villegas, who was on his way to deliver the precious metals to a refinery in Opa-Locka.
While Valdez and company got away from the robbery scene without a hitch, thanks to an anonymous tip, a positive identification by a rattled Villegas and the GPS ankle bracelet he was hauled in by cops a few days later in West Miami.
A Cuban immigrant who has avoided deportation thanks to the U.S.’s wet-foot-dry-foot policy, Valdez has evaded major jail time for years and continued his life of crime. Police and lawyers thought that this time Valdez would be behind bars for good.
Prosecutors believed they had an easy conviction on hand, given Valdez’s record and ankle monitor that showed him at the scene. But Valdez’s attorney, Alexander Michaels, convinced Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Leon Firtel to grant the alleged thief a bail of $75,000 with yet another ankle monitor.
Michaels successfully argued for low bail, claiming no weapon was used during the robbery.
Three months after his bail hearing, the signal from the ankle monitor went dead and Valdez disappeared from the map – setting off an intense manhunt that has led local and federal investigators from the Bahamas to Mexico to South Florida. The judge’s ruling has been criticized, though he defends his decision.
“I have a duty to do here and I call it the way I see it,” Firtel said of his ruling, according to the Miami Herald. “If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. OK. At that point in time when that unfortunately happens, I will have the State Attorney’s Office come down and tell me, ‘I told you so.’”
A Great Manipulator
Valdez arrived on the shores of the U.S. in the spring of 2005 and quickly obtained a social security card and driver’s license in Florida thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act, which gives expedited legal status to any Cuban who touches U.S. soil.
Settling down in an apartment near Florida International University with his exotic dancer girlfriend, Valdez quickly got busy in Miami’s criminal underworld. He earned his first charge in June 2007 when he was busted at a grow house for marijuana possession and granted parole.
The next year, cops found 85 grams of methamphetamine under the hood of his car and in July 2008 he was arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after he attacked security guards at a Home Depot where he was attempting to steal an $18 pair of garden shears.
Bonded out of the assault charge, Valdez decided that prison time wasn’t for him and he fled the country.
“This guy is a great manipulator of the system,” Jim Shedd, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who is privately investigating Valdez’s case, told Fox News Latino.
Flying under the radar for almost two years, Valdez reappeared in Cancún, Mexico in 2010, where along with smuggler Adam Meza and seven other Cubans he was arrested on charges of human smuggling, numerous Mexican media outlets reported at the time.
Valdez was allegedly part of an organized ring of Cubans smuggling migrants from the island across the Gulf to Mexico using a high speed boat stolen from the Florida Keys. Meza and Valdez were taken into custody by Mexican authorities, but were able to bribe their way out of jail before they could stand trial, the Miami New Times reported.
What comes next reads like something out of a Hollywood crime thriller.
Looking for a big payday, the two Cubans jumped on a plot hatched by the DEA to kidnap the leader of the Zetas drug cartel Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano and earn the $5 million reward.
After ingratiating themselves to the Zetas for almost a year and setting up five drug deals, Valdez and his cohorts were able to somehow drag the person they believed to be Lazcano onto a boat and speed off into the Gulf to rendezvous with the DEA.
Unfortunately for Valdez, the man who they believed to be Lazcano turned out not to be the Zetas leader and the DEA refused to pay up.
A number of people familiar with Valdez’s case speculate that he was never close to the Zetas boss for various reasons: Mexican cartels rarely deal with Cubans, preferring instead their traditional connections in Central America and Colombia; also, given the Zetas tactics it would be very difficult for the Cubans to get near Lazcano and even tougher to kidnap him without getting themselves killed.
The kidnapping, however, must have at least netted someone with in-depth knowledge of the Zetas as within days of the rendition the DEA and Mexican authorities detained a number of high-ranking Zetas members. Lazcano was eventually killed in a shootout with Mexican authorities last fall.
“They kidnapped somebody important, it wasn’t Lazcano but it was someone important,” Shedd said. “Whoever it was, [he] almost immediately began cooperating with U.S. authorities.”
Broke and still in trouble with Mexican authorities, Valdez hopped on a flight back to the U.S. on July 4, 2011, where U.S. Customs & Border Protection arrested him at Miami International Airport for missing his court date following his garden shear attack in 2008.
Once again, the Cuban crook got off easy when Judge Victoria Brennan let him walk free for time served. Valdez then quickly racked a string of offenses in the next year, including another drug possession charge for operating a Miami grow house, abusing the mother of his 2-year-old daughter and getting slapped with a felony armed robbery charge that earned him his GPS tracker.
Out On Bail
That GPS tracker showed Valdez casing an apartment complex where he allegedly swiped $2.8 million worth of gold off of Villegas. It showed when he entered the building. It showed him for five days afterwards peddling the gold to various pawn shops in Miami-Dade County and buying a girlfriend a 2008 Toyota Yaris.
The fact that Valdez walked free on such low bail, despite all the mounting evidence, baffles the minds of the owner of the export company whose gold was stolen, and to investigators looking into the case. The gold flakes were uninsured.
“We still don’t understand how a person with such a record and after robbing more than $2 million benefited with such a low bond,” said Guy Vargas, the president of Quri Wasi, the export company, in an email to Fox News Latino. “We were perplexed by what happened and of course we were sure that, with that background, sooner or later he would escape. And that’s what happened.”
Vargas is the cousin of Villegas, the man robbed by Valdez. Villegas – the only eyewitness in the trial – recently died of a heart attack, which some people attribute to the stress that followed the robbery.
“I feel that he passed away because of the situation,” said David Bolton, the president of Bolton Investigations that was hired by Vargas to find Valdez. “He was scared of what might happen to him.”
During the bond hearing last December, there were questions over whether the heist was a “strong-armed” robbery or an actual armed robbery. Valdez’s attorney argued that no gun was found. Prosecutors argued Villegas showed marks on his hand where the hammer of the gun allegedly slammed down, jamming the weapon and Valdez’s attempt to fire at him.
Prosecutors from the State Attorney’s Office in Miami-Dade County said it would not comment on Valdez’s case because it was still ongoing. But during the hearing, Miami-Dade Prosecutor Brian McCormick expressed concern that Valdez might flee or commit another crime.
“I really am in fear for the safety of the community with this person out,” he said, according to the Miami Herald.
While both local and federal officials are on the case, Vargas – who lives in Bolivia – has hired private investigators to track down the fugitive. Sources have told private investigators that Valdez is either island-hopping down the Bahamas on a stolen 30-plus foot boat or has quietly made his way back to South Florida to rendezvous with his contacts in the underworld.
“He may have just arrived back in Miami from the Bahamas because of the heat we put on him down there,” Bolton said. “He’s got to be around here because he needs his people to make money.”
Shedd, the former DEA agent and a college friend of Bolton, said that while Valdez and his companions made off with $2.8 million, he is probably running low on funds and, like most criminals, can’t function well outside their known areas.
“He stole a lot of gold, but it was an expensive operation and he probably had debts to pay off,” Shedd added. Wherever he went, he only went for a short amount of time because he’ll be back in the area if he isn’t already.”
Investigators are hoping that Valdez’s seemingly incredible luck will run out or that he’ll make a mistake that will get him noticed. Quri Wari is offering a $25,000 for information leading to his arrest.
“He is a very dangerous individual,” Bolton said. “And we need him behind bars.”
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.